The Most Important Part of Strategy Instruction

By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speakers

With the publication of Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman
in 1997, ideas about comprehension instruction began to shift towards teaching students  to be strategic. Since then, powerfully influential books–such as Strategies that Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis and The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo–have helped us understand how to consider the strategic work of reading as a collection of processes that work together to help children comprehend text. While we agree that strategy instruction should be an instructional mainstay, we invite you to consider some of the more subtle aspects of teaching students to be strategic.

LFA2018-Kim-YarisLFA2018-Jan-BurkinsHere are five things to think about as you are working to develop strategic readers in your classroom:

  1. You can better teach reading strategies if you understand the reading processes of students.

    Listening to students read, talking to them about their understanding of texts, and knowing how they idiosyncratically approach and process text is quintessential to knowing which strategy will be most helpful to them. As a teacher you can know 1,000 reading strategies, but if you don’t know your students well enough to understand them as readers, you will not be able to effectively match the strategy with the reader.

  2. Students do not need 1000 strategies to be successful, in fact this may make them less successful. 

    The value of knowing a lot of strategies as a teacher is that we can then differentiate our instruction to meet the individual needs of students. Teaching lots of strategies to all of your students, however, will likely produce a cognitive overload. In the moment of figuring out the tricky part of a text, having three very-versatile strategies will prove more beneficial than having 15 specific strategies. In the moment of reading, problem solving must be on the run. Having too many strategies to sort through slows the whole process, which interrupts comprehension. Sometimes, less is more.

  3. It doesn’t matter how many strategies students know, if they don’t actually use them. 

    The real value of reading strategies is in their application! If students don’t–independent of teacher reminders and prompting–use a strategy, then it is of little value. The reading rubber meets the literacy road when you evaluate strategy instruction through the lens of student transfer–Do students know when, as well as how, to use strategies, and are they doing so independently?

  4. Isolated strategies are not the end goal. 

    The ultimate purpose of strategy instruction is that students integrate new strategies into their larger reading process. Knowing how to infer (or question or predict or clarify, etc.) is not enough. Proficient readers integrate strategies, flexibly using them in fluid ways. Putting all the strategies together is the ultimate goal.

  5. Not all students need explicit instruction in specific strategies. 

    Students who have balanced and integrated reading processes, who are already strategic and agentive as they work through text, probably need little (or even no) strategy instruction. They simply need more time to read. Their reading processes are already what Marie Clay referred to as “self-extending systems.” Be careful about one-size-fits-all strategy instruction, particularly if it replaces actual reading practice for students.

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Immersion Helps Children Envision the Possibilities

By Stacey Shubitz, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Instagram Stories have been around for two years. They came onto my radar about six months ago since several people I follow started creating them. I thought about dabbling in Instagram Stories, but knew I needed to watch a bunch of them before I tried on my own. (Even though Instagram Stories disappear from your profile after 24 hours – unless you save them to your profile from your private archive – I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself!) Therefore, I immersed myself in many Instagram Stories before creating one.

LFA2018-Stacey-ShubitzJust as I needed to view many Instagram Stories to help me figure out how one of my own would go, immersion helps young writers envision what their end products will look like. Regardless of the genre, time spent immersing children in the kind of writing you expect them to produce in a unit of study is time well-spent (Bomer, 2010; Caine, 2008); Eickholdt, 2015; Ray, 2006; Shubitz, 2016). After all, it’s hard to understand what’s expected if you don’t know what the finished piece could look like.

Typically, teachers share mentor texts with students during read aloud time. The first reading of a text should be to experience it as a reader. The second reading of a mentor text should be to notice craft or, rather, how the text is written. After reading a text twice, it is time to dig deeper to notice and note what an author did that made the writing come alive. Many teachers provide time for whole-class discussion of a text so that all students’ responses are honored and recorded on an anchor chart for future reference.

In addition, students can work with partners to read like writers. You may provide students with a variety of mentor texts (i.e., published, teacher-written, student-written) to read and explore together. Provide students with a variety of mentor texts – at different levels – so all students can engage in immersion with a partner.

There are many ways to help students read like writers.

Katie Wood Ray (1999) suggests:

  1. Notice something about the craft of the text.
  2. Talkabout it and make a theory about why a writer might use this craft.
  3. Give the craft a name.
  4. Think of other texts you know. Have you seen this craft before?
  5. Try and envision using this craft in your own writing. (120)

Ralph Fletcher (2011) encourages students to:

  • Make a copy of the writing and put it in your writer’s notebook.
  • Copy a sentence or short section of the piece in your writer’s notebook, maybe mentioning why you chose it.
  • Share it with a friend, zooming in on one part or craft element you really liked.
  • “Write off the text” – that is, create a similar piece of your own. (13)

While Katherine Bomer (2016) provides a third way to examine texts:

Step 1: Read Out Loud.

Step 2: Respond as a Reader.

Step 3: Reread.

Step 4: Read with a Lens.

Step 5: Talk.

Step 6: Record. (10-11)

There isn’t one way to read like a writer. Therefore, it’s important to provide students with a variety of ways to read texts – some are more structured than others – so students can find a process of their own to adopt. After all, we want kids to continue to do this work independently in the future.

After spending two to four days at the beginning of a unit of study to immerse students in a genre, it’s time to determine what they’ve absorbed. After immersion, set aside a day to administer an on-demand writing assessment (Calkins, Hohne, and Robb, 2015). On-demand writing assessments give students the opportunity to try out what they’ve learned after immersion. The data you’ll glean from an on-demand writing assessment will help you modify your whole-class instruction, if necessary, if you notice there are some big understandings about a genre the entire class is missing. In addition, you’ll be able to look at each student’s piece to determine strengths and areas for growth, which can help you set goals for one-to-one writing conferences. Furthermore, on-demand writing assessments provide you with data to create groups of students so you can create a series of small-group strategy lessons to meet multiple needs at one time.

We want students to feel confident when they begin the first non-immersion lesson in a unit of study. One of the best ways to empower kids to feel like they can create writing is to help them understand what it is they’re going to create from the start.

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References:

Bomer, Katherine. 2010. Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

—————. 2016. The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Caine, Karen. 2008. Writing to Persuade: Minilessons to Help Students Plan, Draft, and Revise, Grades 3-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, Lucy, Kelly Hohne, and Audra Robb. 2015. Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Eickholdt, Lisa. 2015. Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fletcher, Ralph. 2011. Mentor Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts and Craft Notes. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ray, Katie Wood. 1999. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

—————. 2006. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Shubitz, Stacey. 2016. Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Research Says Celebrate Invented Spelling in Beginning Readers

By J. Richard Gentry PhD, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Can you read this story written by an end-of-year kindergartner?

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When I see a beginning writer’s story with invented spelling like this, I know it’s time to cheer. This child is well on the way to reading success. Research in a number of studies from Canadian cognitive psychologists Gene Ouellette and Monique Sénéchal has convincingly championed the positive outcomes of invented spelling showcasing the writing/reading connection. They undergird their research with two long-standing independent lines of research: 1) research in tracking developmental phases of word reading (Ehri, 2000) and 2) research in developmental phases of spelling (Gentry, 2000). In a carefully crafted longitudinal study Ouellette and Sénéchal (2017) followed over 170 kindergarten writers from kindergarten to the end of first grade and found invented spelling to be “a unique predictor of growth in early reading skills.” Far from being nonacademic, harmful to traditional values, or a deterrent to conventional spelling they found use of invented spelling to be a boon to learning to read, phonemic awareness, and learning the alphabetic principle.

This study and others including neuro-imaging studies are helping map the beginning pathway to successful reading with a powerful observational tool called phase observation. It’s based on my many years of research on phases of developmental spelling which perfectly align with Linnea Ehri’s remarkable contribution in a separate line of research based on phases of word reading.

The Gentry phases and Ehri phases are essentially one and the same—or two sides of the same coin representing observable outcomes of the developing architecture of the reading brain’s word form area. Remarkably, neuro-scientific imaging demonstrates the development of this critical part of the proficient reader’s brain from non-existence in Phase 0 non-readers and writers to its presence in the brains of proficient end-of-first grade readers and writers (Gentry & Ouellette, in press).

Today, exemplary kindergarten teachers across the nation and cutting edge staff development resources such as the New York City Department of Education Framework for Early Literacy: Grades Pre-Kindergarten—2 (NYCDOE, 2018) tout phase observation and use of the Gentry developmental spelling phases and Ehri word reading phases as important for promoting early literacy development.

How Phase Observation Works

Here’s a Close Look Writing Assessment (adapted from Feldgus, Cardonick, & Gentry, 2017) of the “Earth Quakes” story. If we analyze each invented spelling we get a measure of what phase the kindergartener is in from this small sample.

You can analyze each invented spelling using this guide:

Mark each invented spelling as Phase 3 if it has a letter for each sound.
Mark each invented spelling as Phase 4 if it has logical phonics patterns consolidated into chunks. (There are no Phase 0-2 spellings.)

Invented Spelling

Phase

Phase Strategy

Rth (earth) Phase 3 r for the r-controlled vowel; he knows the digraph th.
qhaks (quakes) Phase 3 qh for /kw/, afor /ā/, k for /k/, and s for /s/
log (long) Phase 3 l for /l/, o for /ä/ and typical omission of a preconsonantal nasal before g
tim (time) Phase 3 t for /t/, i for /ī/, and m for /m/
mac (make) Phase 3 m for /m/, afor /ā/, and kfor /k/
kel (kill) Phase 3 k for /k/, i for /ě/, l for /l/
pepl (people) Phase 3 p for /p/, e for /ē/, p for /p/, and l for /l/
Sanfrinsiskou (San Francisco) Phase 4 syllablechunks for san-frin-sis-kou
hapin (happen) Phase 4 Syllable chunks for hap-in

There is a lot to celebrate here! What immediately jumps out is that this writer is advanced for kindergarten and making progress for becoming a proficient reader. He is likely moving from Phase 3 into Phase 4 as both a writer and a reader. While celebrating his meaning making and other strengths, this sample helps us target instruction for CVC short vowels, the long vowel CVCe pattern, digraphs qu and ng, and eventually r-controlled syllables and the idea that every syllable needs a vowel.

We can celebrate when science confirms discovery of best classroom practices for beginning reading teachers. Over three decades ago Marie Clay, the revered world-renowned, late, theorist and founder of Reading Recovery called for educators and scientists to capitalize on the early writing/reading connection. “It is probable,” she wrote, “that early writing serves to organize the visual analysis for print, and to strengthen important memoric strategies. The child’s written work also provides us with objective evidence of what the child has learned.” (Clay, 1982, p. 210) Today, Clay’s hopeful prognosis has revealed itself in phase observation. Let’s use invented spelling to set beginning readers on a pathway to conventional spelling and better end-of-first-grade reading scores. Science has spoken!

References

Clay, M. M. (1982). Observing young readers. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Ehri, L. C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin.” Topics in Language Disorder, 20, 19-36.

Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I. & Gentry, R. (2017). Kid writing in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Gentry, J. R. (2000). A retrospective on invented spelling and a look forward, The Reading Teacher, 54(3), 318-332.

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. (in press). Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Ouelette, G. & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new Pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77– 88. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179

New York City Department of Education. (2018). Pre-K—2 Framework for early literacy. New York City: NYCDOE Publication.

 

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Making Space for Play: Tapping into Children’s Play Personalities

LFA2018-Christine-HertzBy Christine Hertz, 2018 Literacy for All Featured Speaker 

Teaching children to read, write, spell, communicate and think critically is challenging work, but it is doesn’t have to be serious work. Teaching and childhood are messy, unpredictable, complex, and inherently steeped in curiosity, wonder and joy. As literacy teachers, we can get caught up in planning responsive lessons, delivering rich instruction and meeting benchmarks. Sometimes, we get so caught up that we temporarily lose sight of the children that are right in front of us.

Last year, while teaching a group of first graders a word study lesson on the silent e rule, I watched as a child carefully placed the letters T-A-P-E on the magnetic board in front of her. Next, she picked up her magnetic E and twirled it through the air. She leaned in close to the rest of the word and then pretended that the E was whispering to the magnetic A. A big part of me wanted to say, “Just go ahead and make the word, please.” But instead I, too, leaned in close and asked, “What’s that E saying to the A?” She looked up at me and said very slowly, “Time to be lonnnng.” We both cracked up. In just the first few minutes of the lesson she had invented a playful narrative that helped her remember the spelling pattern and cultivate tiny moments of joy and spark in her learning.

Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul writes, “Play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to invent itself.” Brown has found that there are very distinct ways people like to play.  He calls them play personalities. Identifying your students’ play personalities (or having them identify their own) is as simple as identifying the things that bring them the most pleasure, when they seem to lose time, and they can feel their creative juices flowing. Knowing your students’ play personalities can help you empathize with their very powerful human drive to play. They need play to feel happy, safe, and challenged– to feel like they belong.

Here are Brown’s eight play personalities and some ideas for incorporating them into your classroom:

Stuart Brown’s Play Personalities In the Classroom
Joker: The Joker loves to make people laugh. Their play “always revolves around some kind of nonsense.” (66) Find opportunities to give the jokers in your class time to make you all laugh. You could offer “open mic” moments in morning meeting, ask for silly sound effects during a read aloud, and provide unstructured times when jokers can entertain, laugh and be silly.
Kinesthete: This player “find themselves happiest moving.” (66) This isn’t just athletes, either, this can be the person who thinks best when walking. Incorporate a love of movement into the day with dance, yoga, flexible seating options and plenty of space for big movement. You might offer your writers a quick walk to generate ideas or weave whole-body movements into read alouds or shared reading.
Explorer: The explorer loves discovering new things: mental, physical, and emotional.(67)

 

Engage with your students over a shared sense of wonder. Incorporate opportunities for inquiry and exploring the community into their learning. Offer as much student-driven choice in reading and writing workshop as possible. Teach strategies for reflection to celebrate moments of learning and discovery.
Competitor: This player loves to turn everything into a game, and to win! (67)

 

Tap into the competitor’s love of challenge and drive to win by creating a game out of even the most unremarkable tasks, strategizing about what reading and writing moves would be most effective, and (always) encouraging good sportsmanship. You could also have them help organize a March Madness of favorite books or a class story slam.
Director: “Directors enjoy planning and executing scenes and events.” (67) Use the director’s love of organizing and planning to help orchestrate special events, units, and experiences for your class. You might have your directors plan end-of-unit celebrations, class bulletin boards, student-led book clubs, or open house events for families.
Collector: The collector enjoys the act of gathering, collating, organizing, and admiring objects and experiences. (68) Focus this passion for collecting on your classroom community. Have students document the year in photographs, curate a treasury of beloved stories, and keep portfolios of their work. You might have them use apps such as SeeSaw to digitally collect memories of the year or put them in charge of curating a shelf of the class’ favorite books or books that align to current units of study.
Artist/Creator For the artist, “joy is found in making things.” (68) Carve out time to make things not just for but with your students. You might have your students co-construct bulletin boards and charts or experiment with different genres of writing and ways to express their ideas.  You could even teach your students new art habits and practices (or have them teach the class!) just like you would writing lessons or reading strategies.
Storyteller:

 

The storyteller uses their imagination in all things, and also loves reading and watching movies. (69) Leverage the love of story to bring play and imagination into every area of the day. Invite storytellers to retell inspiring moments from the classroom or beloved stories and use their imaginations to inspire fellow writers. You might help them remember strategies and skills by incorporating little stories into your lessons.

As the new year begins and you start to get to know your students, take the time to investigate their play personalities. Chances are each individual student is a combination of the personalities listed above. If your goal is to make our lessons as engaging and as successful as possible, play is the perfect means to do so. Brown writes, “Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it.”

If you’re interested in more ways to incorporate play and child-centered teaching into your practice, check out my new book with Kristi Mraz, Kids First From Day One, and Kristi’s book, Purposeful Play, co-authored with Cheryl Tyler and Alison Porcelli.

Here’s to a school year filled with joy, wonder & play!


Brown, Stuart and Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Penguin Group/ New York (2010)

Are We Opening the Door Wide Enough for Our Readers?

By Vicki Vinton, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker 

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LFA2018-Vicki-VIntonRecently, I’ve been starting PD sessions by asking teachers to engage in what Harvard’s Project Zero calls a “chalk talk.”  A chalk talk asks participants to consider a question then silently write down their ideas about it, without talking to each other. Then once they’ve gotten their own ideas down, they’re invited to respond to others—again, without any talking.

As you can see, the question I ask is “What do you think are the ‘right reasons’ to teach reading?” And to spark their thinking, I share this passage from Vicki Spandel’s preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writers, where she lays out what she believes are the “right reasons” to write:

Our reason is not—or at least it should not be—to help students meet the standards we set…[Instead] I believe the most worthwhile goals of writing are: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward.”

 Every time I ask teachers to do this, they come up with many worthwhile and meaningful reasons to teach reading:

  • To become a more empathetic human being
  • To acknowledge the complexity of human experience
  • To help us understand how we fit into our world
  • To feel more understood and accepted
  • To not be satisfied with the status quo

Yet often, in their classrooms, these same teachers spend much of their time teaching discrete skills, standards and strategies that, in and of themselves, may never touch on these deeper reasons for reading. To be clear, this isn’t always the fault of teachers. Many schools use packaged or scripted programs, which they require teachers to implement “with fidelity,” and the lessons in those programs are mostly framed around discrete strategies, standards and skills. And in schools that aren’t using packaged material, teachers are often expected to write a specific outcome in the classroom each day—often presented as an “I can” or “Students will be able to” (SWBAT) statement—and then assess who’s met the outcome, or not, by the end of the period.

VV2

Inevitably, what this does is narrow the door for readers in a way that can give them a warped view of reading—and it prevents us from seeing all they might be capable of. To see what I mean, let’s imagine two groups of students both reading the following passage from Patricia Reilly Griff’s Fish Face, which is a Fountas & Pinnell level M book. One group is being asked to identifying character traits, a commonly taught skill, while the other is reading the passage more holistically to consider what it might mean in a broader way.

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When asked to identify each character’s trait, many students will read this passage and conclude that Emily is nice, friendly or kind and that Dawn is shy. In each case, they’d be able to support these conclusions with evidence from the text: Emily is nice because she wants the new girl to sit next to her and says friendly things, like “You have a pretty name,” while Dawn is shy because she’s a new girl and doesn’t always respond to Emily. They might meet the outcome on the board by doing this, but they’d be missing a lot. I’ve seen many, for instance, who miss the fact that Emily has lied to Dawn because, having already identified a trait, they think their work is finished. And by missing that, they also miss the chance to engage in meaningful reasons to read: to realize how complex people are.

Now, let’s see what can happen if we opened the door wider and set the task, not on practicing a skill, but on exploring what the writer might be trying to show her readers. And let’s say we do this in a way that encourages students, not to rush to make claims, but to consider multiple possibilities. Those students might think that Emily could be nice, kind and friendly and also envious, while Dawn might be shy but also mean or snooty. Many might also consider that envy could lead to lying, which would help them understand that people are complex—and might make feel understood and empathetic.

So how do we open the door wider to give students more room to engage in deeper thinking and reap the real benefits of reading?

VV4

Shift from Answers to Thinking

While standardized tests are all about answers, reading is an act of meaning making, and the first thing we need to do is shift our focus from looking for answers to thinking. To do that, we need to be, as Walt Whitman once said, “curious, not judgmental.” That means not hopscotching from student to student until we get the answer we’re seeking, but accepting a wide a range of thinking—not to debate, but to consider. It also means honoring provisional thinking, which uses words like might, couldandmaybe. After all, the only way to really know what’s going on with the characters in Fish Face is to suspend judgment and keep on reading with these possibilities in mind, revising your ideas as you go.

Use Kid-Friendly Language

 I’m often in schools that want teachers and students to use academic language because, after all, they’re in school and that language will be on the tests. Much of that language, though, consists of abstract words connected to abstract concepts, like theme, and while we can teach students to use this language, it doesn’t mean they really understand it.

Take, for instance, the small group of fourth graders I used the Fish Face passage with. Like our second group, they inferred up a storm, though they hadn’t explicitly been asked to. After they’d shared their thinking, though, I asked them—in front of all the fourth grade teachers—if they knew what the word inferringmeant. To their teachers’ dismay, some said they’d never heard it before, while others said they’d heard it, but couldn’t remember what it meant. But finally, a boy said he knew what it meant: reading between the lines.

Of course, that definition is abstract as well. So to help them see what inferring meant, I named for them what they’d done: they’d added up small details in the story to figure something out the writer hadn’t said directly. And to make that even more concrete, I took one of the inferences they’d made and wrote it out as an equation:

Dawn had curly hair and ladybug earrings

+ Emily had straight hair and no earrings

+ Emily wanted earrings (“She flicked at her ears” and has begged her mother)

Emily is envious of Dawn

“Ah,” they all said, now they got it. What they needed was an experience and a concrete example drawn from their own thinking to attach the abstract word to.

Trust the Process

In our current climate of teacher evaluations, accountability measures and mandates, trust is often in short supply. And I’m aware that some teachers are afraid that, if they open the reading door wider, they’ll be seen as not doing their job.

I’m reminded, though, again of something else Vicki Spandel says about writing:

The problem with standards is not that they aim to high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons. . . the little things tend to fall into place anyway. . . What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said we said she should, but because they took her to a place where her writing became powerful.

 When we open the door wide enough for students to engage in real meaning making—which involves continually revising your thinking and considering multiple possibilities—the strategies and skills we can belabor often seem to magically appear. Like the fourth graders, students reading for meaning often infer at higher level than students who are charged with practicing a skill. Also, the claims students reading for meaning make tend to be more nuanced and complex than those of students reading to identify a trait. And when it comes to standardized tests, they’ll be ahead of the game. Instead of starting to think once they’ve read the passage and get to the questions, they’ll be thinking from the very first sentence.

Finally, when we open the door wider, we create enough space for students to feel the power of reading to help them better understand themselves, other people and the world around them. And if those chalk talks are any indication, that’s just what we want to happen.

 

References

Spandel, Vicki. 2005. The 9 Rights of Every Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Giff, Patricia Reilly. 1984. Fish Face. New York: Random House Children’s Books.

 

Teach Social-Emotional Skills through Literacy Workshop

by Mike Anderson, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker
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Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a hot topic in schools right now—as it should be. It’s increasingly clear that social and emotional skills are the keys to the kingdom—it’s the skill set that employers are seeking—the skill set that’s less likely to be outsourced or automated as our economy continues to shift. Perhaps most importantly, strong SEL skills are correlated with many measures of life-long health and happiness including lower rates of criminal activity and substance abuse and better mental health.

As I work in schools across the US, I hear a common and troubling refrain: more kids are coming to school less school-ready than ever before. Children have a hard time listening to others, making appropriate eye contact, participating in group activities, taking turns, sharing, showing empathy, and making responsible decisions. Many theories are posited by teachers. Parents rely on devices to calm/regulate young children, so they don’t know how to function without a phone or tablet in their hands. Parents themselves may lack key social and emotional skills. In some communities, there are a growing number of children coming from homes where opioids and other drugs are used.

Regardless of the reasons, it’s pretty clear that just as SEL skills are becoming even more important, many children seem to be lacking a solid foundation in these skills. To compound this challenge, teachers are already overwhelmed with all that we have to teach. Many schools are attempting to address the need to teach SEL skills by adopting programs and curricula that emphasize the teaching of SEL skills as an add-on—specific stand-alone lessons and activities to be delivered in addition to academic work. For teachers who are already swamped with too much to teach in not enough time, these boxed curricula can feel burdensome and overwhelming, especially when the required lessons don’t even align with the actual skills needed with a particular group of students!

Wouldn’t it be great if the teaching of social, emotional, and academic skills could somehow come together? What of there was a way to teach these skills as a part of daily academic work instead of on the side?

For those of us who use reading and writing workshops to teach literacy, we’ve already got (at least part of) the answer! There are tons of SEL skills that need to be taught for kids to be successful readers and writers. These are the very skills that they need to learn to be successful throughout school and beyond, and, these are the same skills needed to be successful in most literacy standards! Check out the chart below for a few examples of the overlaps between literacy skills (drawn from Common Core ELA standards), SEL skills, and structures commonly used in literacy workshops.

Literacy Skills SEL Skills Workshop Connections
  •  Read widely and deeply; devote significant time and effort to writing
  •  Focus, attention
  • Self-regulation
  • Setting and working toward goals
  • Building independent reading and writing stamina
  • Choosing just-right books and writing topics of interest
  • Explain the relationships/interactions between individuals in a text
  •  Social awareness
  • Perspective taking
  • Effective communication
  • Book group discussion
  • Reading conference
  • Read prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression
  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Reading conference
  • Writing share
  • With guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing
  • Active listening
  • Growth mindset
  • Seeking and offering help
  • Manage stress
  • Perseverance
  • Writing conference
  • Revision/editing
  • Engage in collaborative discussions with diverse partners
  • Empathy
  • Follow social and ethical norms for behavior
  • Control impulses
  • Book group discussion
  • Reading and writing workshops
  • Whole group discussions

A Few Starting Places

Once you start seeing the connections between literacy skills, SEL skills, and the structures of reading and writing workshop, you’ll be amazed at how many start to become obvious. This is both exciting and overwhelming. If every component of reading and writing workshop involves SEL skills that need to be taught (which is true), and if many literacy standards involve SEL skills to be learned (as indeed many do), and if all students need support in SEL skills (and they do), where do you start?

Weave Small Moments of SEL Teaching into Existing Lessons

Each time you’re about to teach a literacy lesson, whether it’s a whole class lesson, a small group strategy session, or a one-on-one conference, consider social or emotional skills that might be involved. Could students use some advice about how to position their bodies effectively for a writing conference? Might they generate some suggestions for how to regain focus on reading after you’ve been distracted? Would some modeling help students better understand how to ask supportive and constructive questions to help push each other’s writing? Here’s a video of a quick discussion I facilitated with a group of third graders as they were about to engage in a series of partner chats to discuss a book they had read. Notice that this is a simple small moment of teaching—something that could easily be incorporated right into many literacy lessons that you already teach.  

Explore SEL Skills in Literacy Standards

This is an activity you might try on your own, with a small group of colleagues (perhaps as a PLC or grade level team), or even with a whole staff at a faculty meeting. First, choose a set of SEL skills or competencies to use. If your district hasn’t already adopted one, you might use the CASEL framework. Another great one is the Habits of Mind. Next, look through your literacy standards or curricula. Make connections between the two. Which SEL skills are required for students to be effective readers and writers? Which literacy skills and structures are great ways to practice the SEL skills kids need to learn? For a more complete write-up of this activity, check out this blog post.

Brainstorm SEL Skills Needed for Structures of Literacy Workshop

This is an activity I tried one summer while teaching a course through the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. We brainstormed common structures used in reading and writing workshop—ones like sustained independent reading/writing, peer and teacher conferences, book groups, read-alouds, whole class lessons, strategy groups, etc. Then, we generated a list of the SEL skills students needed in order to participate effectively in each structure. For example, in order to have good reading conferences, students needed to know how to sit facing their partner, how to make eye contact, how to ask interesting questions, and how to share about a book in a concise way, just to name a few. These lists that we created provided a great starting point for everyone as they considered what to teach, especially at the beginning of the year when setting up these structures.

These are, of course, just a few ideas, but hopefully they’re enough to get you started. I think one more point should be made. Sometimes, teachers worry that they don’t have enough time to teach students social and emotional skills when they already have so many academic ones to teach. The more you explore the integration of SEL in literacy workshop, the more it becomes apparent that SEL skills areacademic. Many are built right into our academic standards and many more are required to participate effectively as a reader and writer in school every day. In the end, I think it’s fair to argue that we don’t have time not to teach social and emotional skills as a part of everyday literacy instruction!

The Buzz About Phonics and Word Study From Spelling Bees to Classrooms – Sparking Students’ Interest in Words

by Jillian Fountain, Intermediate/Middle Literacy Trainer, Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Jillian FountainLast month, ESPN aired the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee.  You may have watched some of the contestants as they asked for the etymology of a word, the pronunciation again, or the familiar question, “Can you please use it in a sentence?”  The contestants certainly appeared nervous, but if you looked closely, you would also have recognized the moment when a child’s eyes glimmered, the corner of her mouth ticked up just a bit, and she allowed herself to exhale.  The expression on each contestant’s face in that moment of recognition made me realize something.  We, as educators, craft belief statements about literacy instruction, but often we leave word study out of these written proclamations.  Yet, learning about words and how they work impacts all aspects of literacy.

I am in awe of how much interest the spellers in the Scripps National Spelling Bee have in words and how they work, and I began to think about what I might begin to put in a belief statement about phonics, vocabulary, and spelling.

Students will develop curiosity and excitement about words and how they work.

When children feel excited about something, it drives them to discover more about it.  Students who are curious and excited about words will notice new words and share them with classmates, talk about favorite words, and use words or parts of words learned in various instructional contexts in their own reading, listening, speaking, and writing.  The energy they exhibit becomes infectious.

Students will use what they understand about words to expand their knowledge.

Phonics, spelling, and vocabulary are complex concepts that require many years to develop.  As adults, we continue to grow our understandings of words and how they work.  We also know that learning builds on learning, meaning that broad understandings get refined as students participate in reading, writing, speaking, and listening over time.  If during a word study minilesson, a class learned that adding the suffix –al to a noun makes it an adjective, meaning “related to,” the next time they encountered a word like chemical, the students would notice it and refer back to their previous learning.  In writing, if a student wanted to describe something that happens over and over again, he could think about how it is a cycle, and use his knowledge of the –al suffix to call it cyclical.

Phonics_Event_PhotoStudents will recognize relationships between words.

Words are closely connected with one another.  Synonyms, antonyms, homophones, homographs, words that have similar meanings that are not exactly the same, multiple meaning words, words that share the same base word, etc., turn language into a puzzle.  If students can spend time thinking about how words are related, it will deepen their understanding of words and how they work, as well as help them more quickly recognize words and their meanings, and more rapidly access words to use in talk and writing.

Students will use their knowledge of words to more clearly understand, and more precisely communicate. 

Ultimately, the point of teaching phonics, spelling, and word analysis strategies is to develop students’ proficiency as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.  If students internalize word-solving strategies, they can quickly and without much effort, accurately read books, articles, letters, and other pieces.  They can also produce a large amount of writing to create readable stories, poems, essays, and other pieces.  If they know a lot about parts of words and relationships between words, they can understand what the writer of a piece or a speaker is trying to communicate.  They can also consider the same information when deciding how to say or write something to get across the message they are hoping to convey.  Think of the power that lies in understanding and communicating precisely.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee occurs once per year, but what I learned from watching this year’s event will stay with me.  As I continue to help teachers think about word study instruction, and how to support students’ understandings of how words work across the school day, I hope teachers see the value in this work.  A curiosity and excitement for, and a depth of knowledge of words will help students throughout their lives.

For more information on our Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom K-3 course August 7-11, 2017 in Cambridge, MA, click here!